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The dangers of geoengineering

HD_Matrix_Wallpaper_by_aNdre_W.jpg

I've long been a proponent of exploring various "geoengineering" responses to global warming, but that's largely because I'm a pessimist about our political system's ability to address the issue in anything even approximating a timely manner. The idea that geoengineering will be easy, however, is slightly insane. Ryan Avent explains:

[T]he question that stands out most to me is just why these geoengineering advocates think that it will be easier to do grand scale, highly unpredictable projects that will affect the earth’s climate in a significant fashion in just a short amount of time than it will be to continue on the path we’re currently following, negotiating for emission cuts. Really, have they thought about this?

Begin with the fact that politicians are extremely risk averse. Who wants to be the guy in charge of the effort to build the who-knows-how-many-billions-of-dollars 18-mile-long sulphur dioxide tube? The downside risks are enormous relative to the potential upside benefits.

And why have they not noticed that the public isn’t exactly enamored with intellectuals at the moment, particularly where global warming is concerned? Think about the conspiracy theories being spun on the right at present and then extrapolate out to what might happen if the United Nations determined that massive amounts of gas ought to be pumped into the upper atmosphere.

But the real failing is the inability to consider the way that various interest groups are likely to act. In the best-case scenario for geoengineering, costs are likely to be focused on certain groups and certain locations, and those groups may respond to the proposed solution by doing anything from demanding compensation to threatening war, depending on their severity. If risk models indicate that certain particularly bad outcomes might result from the project with certain probabilities, and they will, the potential for those outcomes will be negotiation flashpoints, potentially leading to intractable divisions between countries.

Geoengineering seems like the easy approach now, because it’s not on the table. There is no hysterical battle between proponents and opponents, no op-ed bickering between scientists and faux scientists, no global debate on who would and should bear which costs associated with whatever solution is agreed upon. But as soon as it became a real possibility, a fierce debate would rage. And, if one major geoengineering solution were tried and it failed, it is difficult to see how another attempt could win support, and at that point, of course, we’d have lost the ability to address climate change by reducing emissions when it would have helped.

Geoengineering tends to be favored by conservatives rather than liberals. In part, that's simply because it's an effective retort to a policy liberals support. It's possible that an actual geoengineering proposal would unsettle even the theory's most ardent backers. But it's also one of those weird moments when you realize that conservatives aren't necessarily more skeptical of the government than liberals are. They're just skeptical of different things.

Conservatives tend to be very wary of government efforts to intervene in the economy or in social policy. Health-care reform, for instance, is considered far beyond federal capacities. But invading Iraq and rebuilding its government was seen as a perfectly sensible effort for the government to undertake. So too with deploying untested technologies to refashion the reflectiveness of the upper atmosphere. Liberals, conversely, tend to pale at the complexity of these interventions,.

It's also worth noting that both "The Matrix" and "Blade Runner" both included a vision of geoengineering gone horribly wrong. And it wasn't even a different form of geoengineering: It was literally efforts to cut the amount of sunlight reaching the earth. So we can't say we weren't warned.

Image credit: Sotti/Creative Commons.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 19, 2009; 11:34 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Comments

Liberals tend not to support geoengineering because the first generation of solutions to climate change are things they want to do anyway. I suspect the liberal/conservative divide on global warming has more to do with how the different camps feel about possible solutions than how persuaded they are by the underlying science.
As long as global warming is viewed as a prescription for banning SUVs and offshore drilling, the issue is settled as far as liberals are concerned. Conservatives don't want to conserve so they have to either question the underlying science or propose alternative solutions.

Posted by: tl_houston | October 19, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

When attempting to solve a problem which doesn't exist, many options exist and all are equally foolish. Using my favorite example of eugenics, we all recall that Progressives of the early 1900s proposed two basic solutions to the problem of race mixing: the first was forcible sterilization and the second was marriage licensing, complete with blood tests to assure that not one drop of "white" blood would be mixed with any "black" blood.

Underlying the need for either solution, though, was the desire to eliminate the ills of race-mixing, which was at the time believed to lead to the end of all humanity: numerous scientists -- including Nobel Prize winners -- presented grand studies exhibiting the ills of race-mixing, with the public both embracing these studies and encouraging the passage of supporting laws.

Which is the better solution to the race-mixing problem: marriage licensing or forced sterilization?

Humanity is as crippled by global warming as it is by race-mixing, evidence regarding race-mixing exceeds evidence regarding global warming, and policy to thwart global warming is as useful and as prudent as policy to thwart race-mixing.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 19, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

The real case for geoengineering is when world has already crossed the line to revert global warming by proposed containment mechanisms. For example, it seems that despite Kyto accord, Europeans and many other countries have not been able to control their emission. With Natural Gas becoming potentially the single most dominant fuel with new horizontal drilling techniques and spread of shale rock all over the world; there is less of a chance of people letting go free such a resource. Though it is 40% less carbon foot print than oil, it still contributes to more carbon in air and consequently chances are high that we will trip the 'tipping point'.

Enter 'geoengineering ' at that point - politicians will take the risk (Bernanke with the support of Congress and Administration took the massive risk of inflation when facing the spectacle of another Depression) when there are no other options.

Value of geoengineering research for now is to have all ducks lined in a row - have the research done so we have at least some arsenals to address global warming. Geoengineering becomes weapon technology to protect us and potentially dominate global commerce in the world where effects of global warming are all pervasive and irreversible with containment policy failures.

Posted by: umesh409 | October 19, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" episode of The Simpsons. Blotting out the sun crosses the line "between everyday villainy and cartoonish super-villainy."

Posted by: reifier | October 19, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

"Geoengineering tends to be favored by conservatives rather than liberals. In part, that's simply because it's an effective retort to a policy liberals support."

In larger part, it's because conservatives are selfish b-stards for whom the idea of sacrificing or paying more for their particular way of life is an abomination, and if some brown people somewhere get wet feet, then they just didn't try hard enough to get that McMansion.

"policy to thwart global warming is as useful and as prudent as policy to thwart race-mixing."

Hoooboy. rmgregory's apple butter has a overwhelming taste of citrus fruit.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | October 19, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

I love the dieting analogy used in your CBO forecasting approach for geoengineering. We're constantly searching for something to solve our personal gluttony issue in a way that doesn't impact our, well, gluttony.

The base issue with climate change and obesiety is the same; too much production/consumption of the things that cause the problem. Conservatives and liberals both agree that self-control should be the primary solution.

Conservatives main issue is their competing interest to do whatever is necessary to facilitate an increase in corporate/business profits.

Posted by: Jaycal | October 19, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I'm a liberal, for sure, but my suspicion of geoengineering is that we're already living in a landscape covered with the unforeseen consequences of market-driven technological change. Seems like even a conservative could learn that lesson.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | October 19, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

You are right that conservatives' reaction to global warming is colored by their suspiscion of government. However, so is the liberal reaction. Most of you would welcome a big global agency taxing and regulating carbon use.

Posted by: MrDo64 | October 19, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

"Using my favorite example of eugenics, we all recall that Progressives of the early 1900s proposed two basic solutions to the problem of race mixing"

Funny, because we all recall that it was Progressives who stopped those behaviors.

"Humanity is as crippled by global warming as it is by race-mixing, evidence regarding race-mixing exceeds evidence regarding global warming, and policy to thwart global warming is as useful and as prudent as policy to thwart race-mixing."

Because "numerous" scientists were racist and/or wrong about a specific thing, science itself is cannot be trusted. Only you can be trusted. Because a commenter to a blog has never been wrong.

Posted by: dpurp | October 19, 2009 8:57 PM | Report abuse

The other thing I never hear about in relation to geoengineering that I don't understand why is what about the law of unintended consequences. We think we can put a huge tube of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere and we think we know what it would do - we can't even predict the weather.

Posted by: iag4 | October 19, 2009 11:59 PM | Report abuse

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